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“People allergic to me”: Do some people emit skin gases that make others sick?

“I am not sick at all but everyone around me becomes sick.”
A hat-wearing woman in a black and white photo.
FPG / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • Some people are convinced that the gases emitted from their skin cause allergy-like reactions in the people around them. Sufferers have dubbed the mysterious condition “people allergic to me.”
  • In a recent study, researchers compared the skin gases of 20 people who believe they have the condition to those of 24 healthy controls.
  • The “people allergic to me” group emitted significantly higher amounts of various compounds with offensive odors, the exposure to which could lead to adverse health effects.

We all know people in our lives who have foul body odor. It’s no surprise: When certain types of bacteria on the skin break down the lipids and amino acids excreted in sweat, they produce compounds that can be smelly indeed.

But some people are convinced that they’re stricken with something far worse than a mere pungent aroma. They believe that the gases emitted from their skin can actually cause allergy-like reactions in the people around them, including sneezing, runny nose, cough, and itchy eyes. On various forums and communities dedicated to this mysterious and medically unexplained condition, sufferers have labeled their disorder “people allergic to me.” Many say they’re forced to live like plague-bearing pariahs.

“I actually had a couple of people run from me,” one person recalled. “I guess the odor was just that bad. The reactions vary from person to person. For some it is just a mild cough and for others it’s as if they were about to lose a lung! This is a serious problem and no doctor has gotten a handle on it.”

“Within a few minutes of entering a room, people begin coughing and/or sneezing,” another wrote. “I am not sick at all but everyone around me becomes sick upon meeting me… I feel alone and am making myself an outcast from society.”

The few published scientific papers on “people allergic to me” suggest the condition could be an offshoot of depression, social anxiety, or body dysmorphia. However, none so far has attempted to assess whether there’s something genuinely noxious seeping from sufferers’ skin.

“People allergic to me”

In a new study published in Scientific Reports, a team of Japanese researchers rectified this lack of evidence. They recruited 20 people who reported being afflicted with “people allergic to me” and compared their skin gases to those of 24 healthy volunteers.

Fascinatingly, they found that the “people allergic to me” group emitted significantly higher amounts of various compounds with offensive odors, the exposure to which could potentially lead to adverse health effects. On average, these subjects gave off approximately five times more mercaptans (which smell like rotten cabbage), 50 times more acetone (found in nail polish remover), six times more hexanal (which smells like freshly cut grass), and 40 times more toluene, compared to control subjects.

The huge difference in emitted toluene stood out to the researchers, as the chemical is a known irritant.

“Exposure…  in indoor air, even at parts per billion levels, is thought to trigger symptoms such as irritation in the skin, eyes, nose, and throat and psychoneurotic symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea, and headache,” they noted. Indeed, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety cautions against occupational exposure to the compound.

However, the researchers noted that the average concentration of toluene given off by the “people allergic to me” subjects was vastly lower than the amount allowed under Japanese guidelines for indoor air quality. Interestingly, the researchers ruled out excessive sweating as a cause for “people allergic to me.” Subjects showed no signs of increased perspiration compared to control participants.

While the recent study does not reveal a cure or cause for those afflicted with “people allergic to me,” it does largely validate sufferers’ experiences. Something does seem to be physiologically different about their skin.

“Greater emissions of gases were observed in the people allergic to me groups with potential offensive odours and/or adverse health effects, and there are people who are very vulnerable to low doses of chemicals in the environment,” the researchers summarized.

The authors next plan to attempt to observe and analyze the reported allergy-inducing effects of “people allergic to me” on bystanders in a laboratory setting.

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